Thursday 23 November 2017

Obituary: Oliver Hughes

Barrister left a law career behind to become a top businessman and craft beer entrepreneur

Beer and the bar: Oliver Hughes enjoys a craft beer. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Beer and the bar: Oliver Hughes enjoys a craft beer. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Mourners attending Oliver Hughes's funeral at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Oliver Hughes, who died suddenly at the age of 57, pioneered the introduction of craft beers to Ireland with the opening of two small independent breweries and later The Porterhouse pub and micro-brewery in Parliament Street, on the edge of Temple Bar, Dublin.

"He made my drinking life enjoyable again," said one bon vivant, remarking on the accomplishment of the businessman and publican who died of a heart attack at his home in Clontarf on Sunday last.

Oliver Hughes was born in Nottingham, England where his Irish-born father Brian was a barrister and magistrate and his mother Lillian a hairdresser. The family later moved to Scunthorpe where he went to school. But the young Hughes, who was an only child, spent his summers in Gortnahoe, near Thurles, Co Tipperary, with the Lahart family where he formed a close bond with his cousin and later business partner Liam, described at his funeral service as "the brother he never had."

While Hughes studied Law at the University in Hatfield, Lahart was working in the pub trade in Kilburn. They began to tour the pubs getting to know real ale as well as imported beers, then a foreign concept in Guinness- dominated Ireland. Hughes also involved himself in radical politics like the Troops Out movement and fervently attempted to indoctrinate his English college friends in Irish history and culture.

They both returned to Ireland in the 1980s, Oliver to study for the Bar at the King's Inns, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather (James) while Liam worked in the bar trade. They founded their first brewery, Harty's, in Blessington, Co Wicklow in 1983 and later Dempsey's in Inchicore. His mother played an influential role in his business career, imparting experience and knowledge to her son that helped him cope with the successes and failure of business.

Without the support of his wife Helen "nothing would have been possible", said barrister Maurice Collins at Oliver Hughes's funeral service in the Great Hall of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham last Thursday "and it is some comfort that he died at home with you". Helen and the couple's son Elliott (24), spoke emotionally on behalf of his mother and sister, Holly (21).

As various blue bloods, including ironically, Sir Charles Porter looked down from enormous gilt frames at the unvarnished coffin the ceremony opened with Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven and proceeded with a family- organised celebration of his life in music, anecdote and poetry, including Gabriel's Oboe, a rendition of Purple Rain and ending with a full-throttle version of Queen's The Show Must go On.

"Oliver never grew older, which makes his sudden death all the harder to bear," said his friend Maurice Collins, who added that Oliver was passionate about "beer and The Bar (in the legal sense) but beer won out in the end."

His love of music was eclectic and infectious and he recently spent a few days in a tent with friends at the Body & Soul Festival in Westmeath.

"He worked hard - and played even harder," remarked another contributor, master brewer Pete Moseley. One of his brewers, who were encouraged to be "rebellious" said the only time his name was ever mentioned in public was when he was sitting at the bar with Oliver and the announcement would come over public address system: "Oliver Hughes and Pete Moseley, your gate has now closed."

After the demise of the Harty's venture, Hughes and Lahart bought their first pub together in 1989, The Wavescrest Lounge on the Esplanade in Bray, Co. Wicklow, where they stocked imported German and Belgian beers.

"Oliver started a bottle collection - which we still have today. He offered people who brought back a bottle of beer from their holidays abroad two free pints," Liam Lahart told the memorial service. "I was having problems with the sum's here - one bottle, two free pints! 'You don't understand marketing' Oliver said to me, 'I'll fill the bar and you serve the drink.'"

He went on to relate how accountants advised against opening the first Porterhouse Pub and micro-brewery in Parliament Street in the mid-1990s. "Many of the publicans here today at his funeral service looked around and said to each other 'how long will it last?' - but this year we're celebrating 20 years in business."

With Oliver Hughes's flair for publicity they began by serving two beers called 'Wiserbuddy' and 'Probably' - which he said, prompted threatening letters from a solicitors' firm on behalf of Dublin's best-known brewery. Hughes negotiated a two-week truce and then promptly began advertising a nationwide radio competition for names for beers "formerly known as 'Wiserbuddy' and 'Probably'", which attracted another sheaf of solicitor's letters."

The Porterhouse Group now includes pubs and restaurants in Nassau Street, Dublin and the adjoining Lillie's Bordello, as well as Whitworth Dining & Bar in Glasnevin, and abroad the company has pubs in Covent Garden, London and opened one in New York a little over a year ago. It also has the Porterhouse chain of tapas bars.

Oliver Hughes was a genial companion to share a few pints with, as the mix of publicans, barmen, beer lovers and friends and companions who came in contact with him one way or another over the years will attest. After doing the Matt Cooper radio show together some years ago we took a small tour around some of Dublin's pubs. Whether it was Capel Street, off Grafton Street or Temple Bar, he was on first-name terms with everybody we met during the evening.

Hughes and Lahart reprised their success in the beer business by building their own distillery in the Kerry Gaeltacht - the first purpose-built facility in Ireland in 200 years. They produce the acclaimed Dingle Gin, and their first batch of whiskey was bottled earlier this year.

"The location closest to his heart was Dingle," said one contributor to his funeral service, and Liam Lahart added: "Whereas Oliver gets the kudos for everything, he definitely deserves the kudos for that."

Oliver Hughes had been suffering from heart problems but was believed to be recovering when he was taken ill on Saturday night and died at home the following morning.

Sunday Independent

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